MYTHOLOGY – The Sublime

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)

In alchemy, to sublime is to change something into a state of vapor by heat, then to condense it back into solid form, thus – to purify.

Something about those images of the WorldTradeCenter enshrouded in clouds of billowing red smoke reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s description of the sublime, given in an interview with Bill Moyers, fifteen years before the event…

I found comfort in his words and hope the same is true for you. 

The images that billions of people watched on their TV screens that day were both terrifying and riveting. Many people are still confused and uncomfortable with the hypnotic effect these images have had on them.  The visuals are so mesmerizing as to create the kind of awe inspired by high religious art.

Such images have a profound effect on the human brain. In the movie THE FISHER KING (1991) Robin Williams becomes a deranged homeless man, haunted by images of his wife’s death, which are not unlike these same billowing red clouds which precede the falling of the Twin Towers.

In the movie, William’s character rescues Jeff Bridges who, once a talk DJ, is now a street bum after inadvertently convincing a psycho to blow away restaurant patrons and himself after phoning in to Bridges’ show for advice. 

The film follows the Grail myth associated with the Fisher King of Arthurian legend – a theme that Joseph Campbell often discussed as the central mythological theme of our time.

In this film both men find redemption by confronting the terrifying image (the murder of William’s wife – for which Bridges holds some responsibility) and ultimately transcending it.

Here is an excerpt from the Joseph Campbell interview by Bill Moyers in which he discusses the sublime. The entire interview follows below.

CAMPBELL: There’s another emotion associated with art, which is not of the beautiful but of the sublime.

What we call monsters can be experienced as sublime. They represent powers too vast for the normal forms of life to contain them. An immense expanse of space is sublime. The Buddhists know how to achieve this effect in situating their temples, which are often up on high hills. For example, some of the temple gardens in Japan are designed so that you will first be experiencing close-in, intimate arrangements  Meanwhile, you’re climbing, until suddenly you break past a screen and an expanse of horizon opens out, and somehow, with this diminishment of your own ego, your consciousness expands to an experience of the sublime.

Another mode of the sublime is of prodigious energy, force, and power. I’ve known a number of people who were in Central Europe during the Anglo-American saturation bombings of their cities – and several have described this inhuman experience as not only terrible but in a measure sublime.

Moyers: I once interviewed a veteran of the Second World War. I talked to him about his experience at the Battle of the Bulge, in that bitter winter when the surprise German assault was about to succeed. I said, “As you look back on it, what was it?” And he said, “It was sublime.”

CAMPBELL:   And so the monster comes through as a kind of god.

Moyers: And by monster you mean –

CAMPBELL:  By a monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all of your standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct. For example, Vishnu at the end of the world appears as a monster…  

 …there is a Muslim saying about the Angel of Death: “When the Angel of Death approaches, he is terrible. When he reaches you, it is bliss.”

 In Buddhist systems, more especially those of Tibet, the meditation Buddhas appear in two aspects, one peaceful and the other wrathful. If you are clinging fiercely to your ego and its little temporal world of sorrows and joys, hanging on for dear life, it will be the wrathful aspect of the deity that appears. It will seem terrifying. But the moment your ego yields, and gives up, that same mediation Buddha is experienced as a bestower of bliss. 

According to Campbell, a mythological image gives us the sense of riding on a mystery, always pointing toward transcendence.  Transcendence means to go beyond our normal reality, to a place beyond thoughts or words.

Even five years on, leaving politics aside, it’s still too soon to name exactly what those images we’ve all seen on TV will come to mean for us in terms of a collective myth. Yet they’re something we’ve all shared.

What we chose to do with our experience of these images may shape our destiny for generations to come. It is through those horrifying scenes, now shared by billions of people living on the same planet, that we may somehow manage to lose our sense of separateness.  

At the very core of this experience is a glimpse of the sublime – the realization that we are all One

Excerpt from: “Masks of Eternity” as it appears in

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers


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